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Posts Tagged ‘family’

Playmobil Fun Club

June 10, 2015 | by

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Photo: Merete Sanderhoff, from Vermeer and Dürer

Raise a tiny plastic goblet, please, to Playmobil’s founder Horst Brandstaetter, who has died at eighty-one. Brandstaetter, who was apparently known as “Herr Playmobil,” joined the family company in 1952, but it wasn’t until the seventies—and the oil crisis—that he was moved to come up with the cost-effective and efficient three-inch plastic figurines we know today. The first three—a knight, a construction worker, and a Native American—made their appearance in 1974, and the rest is toy history. Read More »

Haunting Houses: An Interview with Angela Flournoy

June 4, 2015 | by

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Photo © LaToya T. Duncan

In Detroit, the Turners have lived on Yarrow Street for generations, and now their home is worth a mere tenth of its mortgage. Oh, and it’s haunted—it’s been that way for fifty years, since Cha-Cha, the oldest son of Francis and Viola Turner, was attacked by a haint one summer night. Angela Flournoy’s debut novel, The Turner House, set primarily in 2008, tells the Turner clan’s story as they tend to the elderly Viola and decide what to do with the family home.

Flournoy hangs the family’s personal struggles on the political history of Detroit, tracing their move from Arkansas to the bright industrial promise of midcentury Motor City, the electric environment of the 1967 riots, and the city’s long decline. “Lelah,” an excerpt from the novel in the Spring 2015 issue of The Paris Review, focuses on the youngest Turner child, whose gambling addiction takes her to Motor City, where she loses the last of her money on a game of roulette.

I met Flournoy near the Review’s offices in north Chelsea. I was late, and Flournoy, elegantly dressed and having just arrived from Detroit, had already enjoyed most of her coffee and was patiently talking on her cell phone. We discussed ghosts, gambling, and the blend of personal and political in her novel.

Your novel is full of Detroit history. Did you hear stories about it from your family?

I did a lot of research. One thing I remember hearing of the ’67 riot is that nobody knew what it was while it happened. Nobody knows that today is going to be the day a riot starts. A lot of people in Detroit actually called it an uprising. So I would apply the facts I learned in my research to a character’s life. Imagine you’re getting off work, or you’re at work, and things just feel weird. Then you hear that something’s happening across town, but no one knows what to call this thing, because no one knows how big it is. It’s more difficult for the individual to frame what’s going on as a whole, what’s happening outside of the details in the personal life. Read More »

Dissolution

May 15, 2015 | by

Notes on becoming dust.

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Mihály Munkácsy, Dusty Country Road II, 1883.

Since he applied paint thickly, and then repeatedly scratched it off the canvas as his work proceeded, the floor was covered with a largely hardened and encrusted deposit of droppings, mixed with coal dust, several centimeters thick at the center and thinning out towards the outer edges, in places resembling the flow of lava. This, said Ferber, was the true product of his continuing endeavors and the most palpable proof of his failure. It had always been of the greatest importance to him, Ferber once remarked casually, that nothing should change at his place of work, that everything should remain as it was, as he had arranged it, and that nothing further should be added but the debris generated by painting and the dust that continuously fell and which, as he was coming to realize, he loved more than anything else in the world. He felt closer to dust, he said, than to light, air or water. There was nothing he found so unbearable as a well-dusted house, and he never felt more at home than in places where things remained undisturbed, muted under the grey, velvety sinter left when matter dissolved, little by little, into nothingness. —W. G. Sebald (trans. Michael Hulse), The Emigrants

Before my godfather and great-uncle Julio became dust, he was a troublemaking, cheating, charming man. When he was a teenager, he stole a closetful of my grandmother’s summer clothes, sold them, and spent the money on prostitutes. When I was three, he got into a gorilla suit and popped out at me, making me cry. Not long before he died, during our final game of Scrabble, he played the word enzapment and maintained that it was real. It’s like entrapment, he said, but with a zap. I acquiesced and tallied his fifty-plus points. When he died, his wife, Maria Cristina, had his body cremated and put into a basketball-size, biodegradable clamshell urn.

I’d be lying if I said casting his ashes was traumatic. The truth is, it was one of the most cathartic and satisfying experiences of my life. Read More »

20/20

March 9, 2015 | by

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The offending glasses.

My grandfather liked to talk about how much uglier Americans used to be. “People were ugly!” he would say with relish. “You have no idea now!” As children, we would always try to refute his claims, citing examples of modern celebrities we considered unattractive. But he would have none of it. “You don’t know,” he said darkly. To hear him tell it, the bit of Arkansas where he grew up was straight out of a Carson McCullers novel—which, I suppose, makes it sort of noteworthy that when a circus came to town, it was my grandfather who was considered such a dead ringer for the sideshow attraction Moe-Joe the Dog-Faced Boy that he bore this name for the rest of his life.

I don’t know if Grandpa Moe was thinking of improved dentistry, malnutrition, or various dermatological conditions; maybe a combination. I can’t help wondering if, also, some people just couldn’t see themselves, so they cared less. After all, regular, exact prescription updates are a modern luxury, too, to say nothing of contacts and laser surgeries. Read More »

Visible Man: An Interview with Mitchell S. Jackson

January 30, 2014 | by

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A still from the book trailer for The Residue Years.

Mitchell S. Jackson’s debut novel, The Residue Years, was published last fall and drew immediate notice for its amazing use of language and voice, the cadence of its sentences, and the authenticity at its center. It tells the sweet, sad story of Grace, a recovering drug addict, and her drug-dealing son, Champ, as they both struggle in an African American Portland neighborhood that was ravaged by crack in the nineties.

Critics said the novel was about race, or poverty, or America’s failed war on drugs. Big, social themes. Personally, I disagree: to my mind, The Residue Years is a personal story, a novel about love, redemption, and freedom. Interspersed throughout are a blank form for a rehabilitation center, a police report, a Baptist church member registration form, a petition for child custody—subtle reminders that this novel is also about all the ways in which we are held captive by institutions that, more often than not, fail us. Between these pauses lie some three-hundred pages of beautiful sentences that mix urban slang with pitch-perfect lyricism, resulting in a new way of expressing American English—at least to my European eyes. Victor LaValle agrees: “It’s tough to write beautifully about ugly things, but Mitchell S. Jackson makes it look easy.” Amy Hempel has said that Grace and Champ are one of the fictional families she has cared about the most. And that’s at the heart of Mitchell’s novel: family.

Last month I fired up Skype and talked to Mitchell for more than an hour—I was in Milan, and he in Brooklyn—about his novel, his writing, and the dangers of how books are marketed today.

Your language is a fantastic mix of literary, poetic, lyrical English, and urban slang—it goes up and down and back and forth. I’m curious to know if you tried to bring together those worlds consciously.

I do feel like I’m in the middle there. I have my preliterary experiences in the urban world, listening to a bunch of hip-hop and listening to my uncles, my friends. When I got in school and started reading, I found people who were writing about a similar kind of experience, and whom I thought the canon respected. But I don’t feel like I’m in a tradition. I don’t think I read deeply enough in either field to really know about a tradition. I do have influences—James Baldwin, of course, and John Edgar Wideman. But also Denis Johnson and Barry Hannah. I like to stay in the middle. I think that that tension lets me play around with voice.

What was your starting point for the novel?

I started writing autobiographical scenes and tried to string them together. I didn’t understand the characters’ motivations. It took me years to figure out what they really wanted. I had a premise—mother on drugs, son sells drugs—but that’s not human. Those are just things people do. It took me some time to figure out what the humanity in the characters was. I saw that this story was really about a mother and a son, about their will to redeem themselves from the hurt they’d caused. Once I realized that, I went back and rewrote a lot of stuff. When I started, the characters were so close to my own life that I felt like they had to speak and act and behave like the people they were based on.

Champ and Grace began as avatars of you and your mom?

At the beginning, and then they became composites. But the origin was in truth. Once you realize the characters have a life of their own and you let them do what’s right for them, the work opens up. I wish I were as smart as Champ, but I’m not as smart as him. Read More »

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All We Had

December 4, 2013 | by

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Photo: Luigi Anzivino.

My boyfriend Keith does not like my dumplings. He thinks they’re plain-tasting. I stir the sticky dough. He says that even their color is unappetizing. Like paste, he tells me, like something thick from inside an engine.

“Like papier-mâché, almost,” he says, and I look at him and blink.

Keith and I have been standing in my cramped kitchen for over an hour now, scraping spoons against spoons, and it’s late. On the table behind us, there’s a bowl of French-cut green beans and a whole chicken, getting cold. I take a pinch of flour and release it over the bowl.

“Like this,” I say, but still the consistency won’t come together in the way I know it can. I add another pinch, and then another, and then another.

The recipe for the dish is my grandmother’s, and it is simple: whisk together flour and egg, whisk until the dough sticks to the spoon and then, at last, snaps back against the bowl. It’s all about consistency, something you can’t put your finger on, something you just have to know. That is why there is no written recipe for this dish, this congealed mess of white that gets boiled in bits and drenched in sour cream and salt and pepper. There is no written recipe because how do you put your finger on dumpling elasticity?

“So you just know?” Keith asks. He dips his finger into the simmering stock beside us, pulling it to his lips.

“I just know,” I say. Read More »

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